The Rail Ombudsman’s Approach to Accessibility Claims

Background

The Rail Ombudsman opened its doors on 26 November 2018, offering a free to consumers, expert, alternative dispute resolution service to help sort out unresolved customer complaints about service providers within the rail industry.

Our vision is to inspire customer confidence and to deliver our service fairly to ensure the right outcome in every case. We also support the rail industry to raise standards.

Like other ombudsman schemes, the Rail Ombudsman gives the parties the opportunity to settle their deadlocked disputes without the need to go to court. Firstly, we always try to resolve the dispute informally, but if this is not possible, we are empowered to make a decision which is binding upon the rail service provider.

We can also make recommendations to the rail sector (both individually to rail service providers and more broadly) to improve their service and we publish case studies and data which can help them to understand what they could do to raise standards.

Our Approach to Accessibility Cases

Since it began operation in 2018, the Rail Ombudsman has considered many different issues arising out of accessibility brought by passengers who have encountered difficulties when travelling on the rail network. This blog focusses on some of the experiences of passengers and, where outcomes were reached, the resolutions awarded by the Rail Ombudsman, under the Equality Act 2010, or otherwise.

Under the Equality Act 2010, disability means a physical or a mental condition which has a substantial and long-term impact on a person’s ability to do normal day to day activities. This is a broad definition which means, for example when proactively assessing what reasonable adjustments people may need to assist them when they travel, rail service providers will need to consider the differing needs of many individuals, each with their own unique circumstances. That said, taking a broad approach to inclusivity in policy making is not only achievable, but desirable since robust systems and approaches to staff training can lead to a better experience for all passengers across the network, increase confidence and service-use and reduce the need for complaints.

The Rail Ombudsman can look at claims with the potential to fall within the remit of the Equality Act 2010 and otherwise relating to accessibility. Our remit is defined by scheme rules that impact the way in which we are able to review such claims, for example:

  • The Rail Ombudsman’s maximum award limit is limited to £2500. On average, where awards are made, cases relating to accessibility see a greater average award value (£145.63) as compared against other complaint categories (£90.62).
  • The Rail Ombudsman can look into cases where the incident occurred within the last 12 months.
  • The Rail Ombudsman is evidence-led and will require evidence or information to confirm what happened or what events took place and unlike a court will be unable to cross-examine people. That said, we will try to guide the parties as to what evidence is required to establish a case and will take an inquisitorial approach to evidence gathering, which means that if information is missing, we will ask the parties for it.
  • The Rail Ombudsman’s decisions are binding on the rail service provider, but not on the passenger which means they could then decide to take a case to court, having first tested it via our alternative dispute resolution service.
  • Rail Ombudsman cases have to be concluded within 40 working days unless there is a reason for a case to be extended, for example due to the passenger’s personal circumstances or needs. The Rail Ombudsman found during 2021 and 2022 that there was more scope to extend a case relating to accessibility when compared to other complaint categories, the average days to close for the former being 35 working days and 25 for the latter.

The circumstances that give rise to accessibility complaints can be upsetting and distressing for people and we recognise that in our empathetic approach to complaint handling. We will try to talk to people in every case, as long they want to engage with us in that manner, so that we can understand what went wrong from their perspective. We can also make recommendations to rail service providers to help them improve things and it is not unusual for us to suggest that the passenger has a meeting with the accessibility lead in order to improve their confidence in travelling going forwards and for them to understand any processes that they may need to follow and what flexibility can be arranged for them.

Understanding what went wrong and how to avoid that in the future, can be a big factor in passenger confidence and complaint resolution. Sometimes the parties settle without the need for a formal decision and we can facilitate that through the communication of offers and discussions as to why (or not) the passenger believes that may be reasonable. For example, one passenger who was stranded at a station due to a lift being out of order was content to settle the matter with an apology, a gesture to make this apology more meaningful and an explanation as to the change in policy that their claim brought about. Other claims may settle for monetary amounts and it is important here to recognise that offers should not be so small as to trivialise the policy which underpins the legislation and, therefore, to listen to the passenger and understand what they are seeking in resolution as a starting point to settlement discussions.

Some Case-studies

Below are some examples of where the Rail Ombudsman has made awards and some of the factors that we took into account.

  • A passenger who was stranded when the ramp was not correctly deployed to disembark them was given an award of compensation to recognise that, whilst the rail service provider had a system in place, it was accepted that it did not work in the consumer’s case and the consumer was subjected to a protected and public incident as a result. The circumstances were mitigated by the fact that it was an isolated incident and an award was made which represented a sum that the passenger had indicated would be in the region of that which was acceptable to them, bearing in mind the Rail Ombudsman’s maximum award level within which we are required to grade the incident.
  • In the same case noted above an additional award was made in respect of the complaint handling element. The rail service provider sent a hamper and some national rail vouchers. The consumer asserted that they did not accept the hamper, however this could not be verified as the rail service provider did not have a call recording since the call had been made on a mobile phone.  Whilst broadly speaking, the onus would be on a passenger to provide some evidence to back up their assertion, the Rail Ombudsman considered that the rail service provider should have had systems in place either to record the call or provide a contemporaneous note. The consumer also stated they travelled on a free pass and so rail vouchers were of limited use. The Rail Ombudsman therefore made a further award for the way in which the complaint was handled.
  • In a different case, the passenger held an “I can’t wait” card and RADAR key. They presented their card and asked staff to direct them to a toilet, the one on the station being out of order. In response, they were told to use a pub down the road. No evidence was provided to support that there was any advance notification of the toilets being out of order which precipitated the requirement to find another means of going to the toilet which would have been a public and embarrassing incident. The Rail Ombudsman recommended that the RSP considers how station information is reviewed to ensure all accessibility updates are timely, and suitable alternatives planned for. The recommendation is there to ensure alternatives are planned for and updates as timely as they can be. Also where things do go wrong to consider the proportionality of what is being offered against the Consumer experience at the time. An award was made in respect both of the incident and for the way in which the complaint was handled.
  • A visually impaired consumer was unable to book tickets over the telephone and consequently purchased tickets from a different retailer, which were more expensive. The Consumer then travelled with these tickets and experienced delays. The Delay Repay claim was raised with the rail service provider and was rejected. The Consumer had difficulty in appealing this and in complaining about the ticketing issue, when they did this by telephone. In addition to compensation, the Consumer was seeking a reasonable adjustment when booking future travel. Unlike a court, the Rail Ombudsman cannot make any declaration regarding a reasonable adjustment, however, it is clear that the service provided to the passenger was to a lesser standard that would have been the case to the public at large and they were subjected to additional expense when making the purchase along with time and trouble seeking redress. The Rail Ombudsman made an award for the ticketing issue and recommended that the RSP reconsiders the option to provide ticket purchase through the Assisted Travel line which the RSP did.

The Rail Ombudsman also reviews cases relating to booked assistance not being provided at a station or on the train, lack of facilities at the station or on the train, the level of service from assistance staff, lack of information.

One of the challenges for the Rail Ombudsman when it considers a complaint is often around the availability of evidence where accounts differ between the individual and the rail service provider and there is nothing to corroborate either account. The availability or otherwise of CCTV can be a factor, but as this does not usually have sound, it is limited in terms of evidencing the content of an interaction, unless body-cam footage is available. The Rail Ombudsman therefore advises passengers to request this footage when they raise their complaint as it can often get over-written and therefore be no longer available.

Some examples of Our Recommendations

Other examples of recommendations that the Rail Ombudsman has made include those relating to booked assistance, information and the way in which complaints are handled, for example

  • The Rail Ombudsman recommended that a rail service provider reviewed the process of contacting passengers with booked assistance where there is disruption, particularly on long journeys.
  • The Rail Ombudsman recommended that a rail service provider reviewed how station information is reviewed to ensure all accessibility updates are timely, and suitable alternatives planned for.
  • The Rail Ombudsman recommended that rail service providers consider how better to signpost to British Transport Police for reporting anti-social behaviour in real time and that greater prominence is given to information and on-board literature providing clear advice of how to report these issues in real time in order to sign-post methods of support and a place to go if someone feels threatened.
  • The Rail Ombudsman recommended that rail service providers brief customer service staff on how to consider accessibility related complaints from other issues, to ensure they are not overlooked, for example when grouped with other types of claims (for example refunds or delay repay), receive speedy responses with sufficient prominence to the issues at hand and to enable escalation if required.

The Rail Ombudsman can make recommendations to an individual service provider or the industry as a whole.

What can consumers expect from the Rail Ombudsman?

Case received once we receive a case, the consumer is given a unique reference number and access to our Case Management System and/or the contact details of a designated Ombudsman to keep updated with the progress of their claim.

Review – we look at the details which the consumer has provided to make sure that it is something we can investigate. If not, our single-front door either transfers or signposts the complaint to the most appropriate organisation.

Response – if we can take on the complaint, the next step is for us to request a formal response from the rail service provider. The complaint is assigned to an ombudsman who contacts both parties to introduce themselves and explain what happens next.

Investigation – we assess and weigh up the evidence provided and taking into consideration the rights and obligations set out in law and what is fair, reasonable and practical. We might need to request further information or evidence.

Mediation – we always try to bring the parties closer together and where possible close the case with an agreed resolution.

Adjudication – if the parties still do not agree, we make an independent decision on the case outcome, based on the evidence and information provided.

Closure – once the decision is made, the case is closed. The consumer has 20 days to decide whether to accept it or not and the decision is binding upon the rail service provider if it is accepted. If the consumer does not wish to accept the final outcome, they are not bound by it and can look to other forums, such as the courts.

All cases are looked at on their own merits and the evidence provided. However, in all cases, the parties can expect us to:

Listen as an evidence gathering service, the first thing we would do is to allow the parties to have their say. By listening to both, using a variety of communication channels, we find the grievances are aired and everyone is better placed to come back together to discuss options to resolve the matter amicably;

Be Independent – we are neither a trade body nor a consumer advocate and as such we take a neutral position and assess the information which the parties have provided to us.

Be Accessible – A consumer’s unique circumstances can impact on their ability to access the service and this is built in to both Rail Ombudsman processes and also to the scheme rules where additional time might be needed to bring a claim or accept an award. Our service is simple and easy to use, whatever the needs of the parties. We have taken steps to ensure anyone can contact us and let us know their communication preferences and our team are friendly, professional and approachable.

Be Consistent –whilst our decisions do not set precedents, our legally trained ombudsman team make consistent decisions based upon the facts before them, the consumer’s legal entitlement, always underpinned by moral fairness and natural justice.

Be Fair –  we listen to both sides and come to a fair resolution, which in some instances may be something which neither party had considered before.

 

 

ORR announces outcome of tender process to appoint a Rail Ombudsman service provider

ORR appoints provider and strengthens Rail Ombudsman scheme for passengers

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has today announced Dispute Resolution Ombudsman (DRO) as the provider of the new ORR-sponsored Rail Ombudsman scheme.

Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, who operate the current Rail Ombudsman scheme under a Rail Delivery Group contract, were appointed following a competitive tender process and their contract will run for five years.

The ORR sponsored scheme will introduce improvements for passengers, including:

• strengthening the accessibility requirements of the scheme, including by building improved representation of disabled passenger interests into the scheme’s governance arrangements

• a requirement to undertake testing around the access and usability of the scheme for passengers with disabilities, as well as testing general passenger awareness of the service

• strengthened relationships with transport user groups

ORR also intends to review options for reducing current case-handling response times down from the current standard of 40 working days.

Stephanie Tobyn, Director for Strategy, Policy and Reform at the ORR said: “ORR is delighted to be delivering on the Plan for Rail commitment to take on sponsorship of the Rail Ombudsman. An Ombudsman is vitally important in providing resolution where passenger complaints cannot be settled directly with the train company.”

“ORR sponsorship provides ongoing stability to the Rail Ombudsman scheme, assures its
independence, and supports its continued evolution in driving continuous improvement across industry.”

The May 2021 Plan for Rail set out an intent for ORR to take over sponsorship of the Rail Ombudsman from the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). Since this announcement, ORR has been working with stakeholders in government, industry, transport user groups and the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) sector to put in place the arrangements to take on ORR’s new sponsorship role. This included launching a competitive tender process earlier this year to find a provider for the ORR- sponsored scheme.

Kevin Grix, CEO and Chief Ombudsman of the Rail Ombudsman said: “We are proud that our work to raise standards and resolve disputes over the last five years, as the serving Rail Ombudsman, has been recognised as the best solution by the ORR for the future. This recognition enables us to take forward our work delivering for passengers and the rail industry. We welcome the ORR’s plans to improve the passenger experience and look forward to playing a central role in helping them.”

ORR will be working closely with Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, Rail Ombudsman scheme members and wider stakeholders to support the transition to the new ORR sponsored scheme, which will come into effect later this year.

Consumers need not take any action and can continue to access the Rail Ombudsman scheme as normal throughout the transition period.

Notes to editors

1. The Rail Ombudsman scheme was launched in November 2018 and provides a free service to investigate unresolved complaints between consumers and participating train and station operators. It also supports the rail industry in raising standards and improving services for customers.
2. The Dispute Resolution Ombudsman Limited, is an independent, not-for-profit, government approved Ombudsman scheme, incorporating The Furniture & Home Improvement Ombudsman and Rail Ombudsman providing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for the rail, retail, furniture and home improvement sectors.
3. The ORR contract will consist of an initial five-year term with the option for the rail
regulator to extend this.

MP visits the Rail Ombudsman

Thursday, 30 March 2023: The Rail Ombudsman received a visit from local MP, The Right Honourable Stephen McPartland at its headquarters in Stevenage today.

An active employer within Hertfordshire, the independent and impartial Ombudsman scheme that was put in place in 2018 to help investigate unresolved passenger disputes, mediates between Rail Consumers and Train Operating Companies whilst helping to raise industry standards by providing feedback and training within the sector.

The Rail Ombudsman was established following a campaign by consumer group Which? and was outlined as a pledge in the Conservative Party Manifesto released ahead of the 2017 election campaign.

Mr McPartland met with the Chief Executive of the Rail Ombudsman, Kevin Grix who discussed the Ombudsman’s role as a leading employer in the area, its engagement with local communities and charitable organisations and the schemes’ wider part in supporting the Government’s strategic vision for the railways including boosting capacity, reliability and improving journeys.

Mr McPartland has been an MP since 2010 and represents constituents as well as delivers for the community in Stevenage, Knebworth, Datchworth, Codicote and Aston.

With over a million complaints¹ that were made to the Rail Industry since 2018, 74% of rail passengers with in-scope cases received a full or partial remedy with the Rail Ombudsman last year. As the front door for all rail complaints, the Ombudsman will signpost and transfer any escalations that are out of scope. A total of 4,399 in-scope cases were closed in 2022, taking an average of 24.7 days to close.  A recent Ipsos survey ² reveals that consumers remain likely to reuse (67%) and recommend (65%) the Rail Ombudsman.

Kevin Grix, CEO and Chief Ombudsman, Rail Ombudsman said, “It was a pleasure to have Mr McPartland visit our Head Office and to give him a tour of the premises, whilst demonstrating how we’re implementing new strategies and tools as we look forward to the future. We know that railways are an essential part of the daily life for millions of people and the cost of travel is not inconsequential.  When things go wrong it can be very disruptive which is why we’re here to support passengers, many who are potentially vulnerable, and provide a point of escalation for complaints about service providers in the rail industry.”

Decisions by the Rail Ombudsman are legally binding, and all train operators within England, Wales and Scotland are part of the scheme, which also provides learning and accredited City & Guilds training.

Stephen McPartland said, “The UK has set out plans for faster improvements in customer service and passenger experience, including improving redress for when things go wrong, and it was a pleasure to see how the Rail Ombudsman is supporting these targets. As a leading local employer, I was encouraged and am proud to see their engagement with the local community and charity work based at their HQ in Stevenage, the economic engine of Hertfordshire.”

 

  1. https://dataportal.orr.gov.uk/statistics/passenger-experience/passenger-rail-service-complaints/
  2. https://static.railombudsman.org/roweb/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/22111839/Rail-Ombudsman-Consumer-Experience-Survey-Report-2022.pdf

Rail Ombudsman releases Resource Pack to Empower Young Rail Users

The Rail Ombudsman is launching ‘The Young Person’s Train Guide’; a rail byelaw campaign aimed at young people by engaging with Rail Operators and other stakeholders in the industry. Train operator Merseyrail has picked up this initiative and has partnered with local schools in the Liverpool City Region to educate the new generation of rail users on ways to remain safe when using the network and empower them to use trains confidently in the future.

Since the establishment of the first Rail Ombudsman in 2018, young people’s lack of knowledge of rail travel, the laws and byelaws that govern it and passenger’s responsibilities and obligations to achieve safe passage, has been evident. Cases whereby young people are penalised based on a lack of experience or knowledge of the rail sector, can be very damaging. Their experience of the industry is negatively impacted, confidence is knocked, and parents, guardians and families’ reactions have long term industry repercussions.

The campaign, created by the Rail Ombudsman – an independent organisation offering a free service to rail users to help sort out unresolved customer complaints about train operating companies, seeks to target and address this growing problem by supplying interactive exercise packs to schools and youth groups that can either be completed by young adults independently, or as part of the PSHE curriculum though teacher-led worksheets, competitions and blog style content. The learnings gained from these lessons can directly be implemented on their next rail journey and includes content themes such as fares and ticketing; unacceptable rail behaviour; safety and rail cards.

The educational campaign targets reaching young people across Great Britain and the resources can be downloaded for free directly from the Rail Ombudsman’s website.

Through collaboration with the industry and key stakeholders, a key remit of the Rail Ombudsman is to recommend solutions to prevent future complaints but also to increase confidence of young people and their parents and families in a safe, nonthreatening, accessible way.

Kevin Grix, CEO and Chief Ombudsman, Rail Ombudsman said, “This national initiative has been designed to educate and empower young people as train travel is returning to pre-pandemic levels and often relied upon as a key mode of transport for the next generation of rail passengers. We’ve witnessed first-hand the impact that lack of knowledge can cause when young people travel by train, often with devastating consequences which could have been avoided, and our aim is to educate and inform young people to travel as confidently and securely as possible.”

Jane English, Deputy Managing Director at Merseyrail, said: “By working with the Rail Ombudsman and some of our local schools we want to ensure that young people know what is expected of them and what their rights are whilst using our services.

“We want to instil confidence and the love of rail travel among young people in our region by engaging with them through their regular PSHE sessions at school.

“We will be working with Maricourt High School in Maghull in the coming months to include this important new resource in their lessons.  We will then hope to replicate that in other high schools in and around our network.

“We will also be adapting the resource pack to be included in the regular educational hub visits to our stations which are led by our school liaison team. These start from year 6 to prepare children for their move into secondary education and independent travel.

“We are delighted to be involved in the rollout of these resources and we will continue to engage with the young people of the city region to help improve their travel experiences and ensure that they also have a voice in their rail network.”

LNER spokesperson said: “This is a great initiative and one that LNER is happy to support. The Young Person’s Train Guide will help tackle some of the perceptions that surround rail and help promote the reality that rail is a fun, easy and environmentally friendly way to travel.

“We want to encourage more people to think and choose rail, and to do that we as an industry have to make travelling by rail as easy and stress free as possible. This proactive step will make sure that young people are equipped with the knowledge to travel on the railway with confidence.”

To find out more, visit bit.ly/3IPMN9a. 

Travelling by train to your Christmas Bubble?

Passenger on a train

Office of Rail and Road proposals to modify licence conditions to require membership of an Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme for the rail industry.

Fasy train

New Rail Ombudsman Launches

The first ever Rail Ombudsman service is launching today, as part of the industry’s efforts to uphold the highest standards in its complaints process and to increase customer satisfaction.

Boarding a train with a suitcase

Rail industry appoints first ombudsman

Rail industry appoints ‘Dispute Resolution Ombudsman’ to rule on complaints as part of the rail industry’s plan to change and improve.